The Spiritual Disciplines: What They Are and How They Can Help You

Spiritual Disciplines
Transformation is a gift from God: we can’t force it. What we can do, however, is position ourselves to be transformed by him. And that’s the point of the Spiritual Disciplines.

Before We Start: Why should you even care about the Spiritual Disciplines?

If you’ve been part of any church for some time, you’ve probably heard someone say something like this: “To grow in your relationship with God, you have to read your Bible and pray.” 

Now, reading the Scriptures and praying are great things, but the problem is this: that is about ALL that you will often hear about growing in your spiritual walk.

Let me be clear: my intention here is not to criticize any church or the Church as a whole. I love the local church and am an active part of one in my city (I’m currently located in Buenos Aires, Argentina).

But there is no doubt that this is a huge blind spot in most churches, at least in the Evangelical tradition I grew up in and am still part of.

So what if there were a way to go deeper? 

The good news is this: there is! There are time-tested practices found in the Bible and in church tradition that help us grow in maturity and move forward into greater levels of freedom.

These practices are called the Spiritual Disciplines, and they are the key to personal growth and transformation.

Here’s a quick summary of the contents of this article. Feel free to jump ahead to any section you’d like to!

  1. What Are the Spiritual Disciplines?
  2. Discipleship: The Motivation for Discipline
  3. The Problem
  4. How the Spiritual Disciplines Position Us to Be Transformed by God
  5. A Final Word of Caution
  6. Where Do We Go From Here?
  7. References
List of Spiritual Disciplines

What Are the Spiritual Disciplines?

Let me start by defining my terms. When I speak of the Spiritual Disciplines, I am referring to certain practices that help us grow closer to God and become more like him. For your reference, here is a quick list (as found in Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster):

  1. Meditation
  2. Prayer
  3. Fasting
  4. Study
  5. Simplicity
  6. Solitude
  7. Submission
  8. Service
  9. Confession
  10. Worship
  11. Guidance
  12. Celebration

Before we see how the Spiritual Disciplines work and how we can practice them, we need to take a moment to talk about a term that explains why Christians have practiced the Disciplines for centuries: discipleship.


Discipleship: The Motivation for Discipline

When we hear the word “disciple”, we usually think of the 12 men who were closest to Jesus during his life and ministry in ancient Palestine. You know, the ones sitting around the table in Da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper.”

In fact, Jesus had far more than 12 disciples, and many of them were women! Being a disciple had nothing to do with one’s “position” or “title” and everything to do with their attitude.

Now, before we define the word “disciple”, let’s look at Matthew 28:19-20, known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus gave final instructions to his followers before ascending to Heaven. He said to them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20a ESV).

Jesus did not say, “Go and make converts,” or “Go and have people repeat a prayer after you.” Although those are not bad things, he specifically said, “Make disciples.”

So, what is a disciple?

The word “disciple” is the English translation of the Greek “mathetes”, which is defined as “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice” (Danker et al, 2000).

Now, a disciple was not just a student who attended classes and listened to a teacher. A disciple would follow their teacher practically everywhere, learning from their words and example. In ancient Jewish culture, there was a saying that went something like this: “Be covered in your rabbi’s dust,” or in other words, follow so close behind your rabbi (teacher) that you end up getting covered by the cloud of dust they raise as they walk along the unpaved road.

In a sermon he preached back in 2016, John Mark Comer (former pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon, and founder of Practicing the Way), defined discipleship based on three goals: 1) be with Jesus, 2) be like Jesus, and 3) do what Jesus did. I think this is a very helpful paradigm. Discipleship is about much more than just learning concepts or attesting to certain beliefs. The heart of discipleship is about being close to Jesus, and as a result, being completely transformed by him.

And that’s where the Spiritual Disciplines come in: they are the path to the transformation we seek.

The Problem

The Problem

If our goal as disciples of Jesus is to be with him, be like him and do what he did, we face a serious problem: transformation is hard.

If you’ve ever dealt with a negative habit, you’ve probably found it nearly impossible to overcome.

And here’s the bad news: we cannot be changed through sheer willpower alone. We cannot “will” ourselves to become like Jesus.

As Heini Arnold wrote in Freedom from Sinful Habits, “We . . . want to make it quite clear that we cannot free and purify our own heart by exerting our own ‘will.’”

Transformation is a gift from God. We can’t force it.

What we can do, however, is position ourselves to be transformed by him.

And that’s the point of the Spiritual Disciplines.


How the Spiritual Disciplines Position Us to Be Transformed by God

1. The Spiritual Disciplines help us “sow to the Spirit”

Galatians 6:8-9 says this: “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Now, we can’t force a plant to grow. We can’t make it produce fruit. No amount of “huffing and puffing” will make it grow.

We simply have to sow seeds, cultivate the correct environment (nutrients, water and sunlight), and wait. 

The plant grows on its own. 

The Spiritual Disciplines are like that. They are how we “sow to the Spirit,” in the words of Paul in Galatians 6. As we practice the Disciplines we create an environment in which our spirit can grow and we can become more like Jesus.

2. Practice makes “perfect”

1 Timothy 4:7b-8 (ESV) says, “Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

That passage likens our pursuit of godly character to physical training. Though they have different goals, they are very similar.

When it comes to physical exercise, we can’t force ourselves to become stronger and healthier, but we can establish rhythms that lead to growth and change. We can’t just “will” an attractive physique and better athletic performance, but we can get up every morning and choose to work out.

That is how the Disciplines work. They aren’t about “trying really hard” but rather about establishing healthy habits that, over time, will lead us to become more like Jesus.

3. The Disciplines help us leave superficiality behind.

Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline, “The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.”

When we begin to delve into the world of Spiritual Disciplines like Listening Prayer, Meditation and Bible study, we will be challenged. We will come face to face with our “inner demons”, family patterns of dysfunction, troublesome emotions, and more.

If we are willing to push through, we will come out on the other side more healthy and free, and able to make a positive difference in the people around us and even in future generations.


A Final Word of Caution.

Before you go, I want to point out two very real dangers we all face when we embark on the journey of practicing the spiritual disciplines:

1. The first danger is pride and self-righteousness. 

You see, as you grow in maturity it is very easy to believe that your progress is the result of your effort alone. That you are responsible for the results you are seeing.

But remember: transformation is a gift from the Holy Spirit. We don’t make ourselves grow.

We simply sow the seeds and position ourselves in the correct environment (in God’s presence), and he produces the growth.

2. The second danger is legalism.

As we practice the spiritual disciplines and see wonderful results in our own life it is very easy to think, “Everyone needs to do this.”

And within certain boundaries, that is a great attitude. Of course we should share what we are learning with others and encourage them to adopt the Spiritual Disciplines in their life.

But if we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of turning gifts into laws and putting a heavy burden both on ourselves and others. 

By all means, invite others to join you on the journey. But avoid the pitfall of legalism.

Where do we go from here

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the coming weeks and months, I will be posting articles about different Spiritual Disciplines that I hope you will find helpful. My goal in this is simple: to help you invite God into every moment of your life. 

Here are some articles that I have already written about the Spiritual Disciplines:

What is Breath Prayer? (And How To Do It)
What is Biblical Meditation? (And How To Do It)

There will be more to come, so stay posted! And don’t forget to subscribe to the Daily Thoughts if you haven’t done so already. They are short thoughts that I send out every weekday and are designed to help you invite God into every moment of your day. Sign up here.


First, I want to say that I am deeply indebted to Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline and John Mark Comer’s teachings on the Spiritual Disciplines. They were the spark that set me off on this journey many years ago, and I am deeply grateful to both of them.

Here are the resources that I cited in this article:

  • Arnold, J. Heinrich. Freedom from Sinful Thoughts. New York: Plough Publishing House, 2014.
  • Danker, Arndt, W., W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth; 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. 
  • Tverberg, Lois. “Covered in the Dust of Your Rabbi: An Urban Legend?” January 27, 2012.

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